How To Stay Safe When You’re Hooking Up

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We at Bustle love giving you tips for how to tap into your sexual potential and troubleshoot when things aren’t going your way in the bedroom. But what about finding solutions to those stressful sexual health situations that inevitably crop up when you’re getting down? Emma Kaywin, a Brooklyn-based sexual health writer and activist, is here to calm your nerves and answer your questions. No gender, sexual orientation, or question is off limits, and all questions remain anonymous. This week’s topic: staying safe during casual sex.

Q: I’m newly single and loving it! However, I must confess I’m a bit rusty on how to protect myself from STDs. I was monogamous with my ex for five years and I’m on the pill, so after we got tested we stopped using condoms. Now I’m free and on the prowl, but I want to make sure I’m taking care of myself. Yes, I know I should use condoms, but if I'm hooking up with different people, is there anything else I should be doing to protect myself from STDs? I want to have fun but I don’t want to end up with baby or a disease!

A: Sex is so fun, but it can also be stressful, and a big part of that is exactly what you’re talking about — unwanted diseases. The other main health-related component is of course unwanted fetuses. The reality is that no sex is 100 percent safe. However, there are some simple things you can do to put yourself in the safest situation possible, so you can have fun with minimal stress.

One note before we get into this: lots of sexual health websites and educators say things like “you’re more likely to get a sexually transmitted disease if you’re having sex with multiple people, so if you want to protect yourself, have sex with fewer people,” as if safer sex were a first grade math problem. This is slut-shaming in its most base form and we are going to dismantle that right now with some good old-fashioned knowledge. Because the truth is, it’s way more complicated than that, and— spoiler alert — you can have way safer casual sex with 100 people than with one partner, depending on a couple of important factors.

1. Know How You Get An STD In The First Place

First off, an STI is a virus, parasite, fungus, or other thing that can make you feel not great (or be asymptomatic) that you get through sexual activity. This usually means that these microscopic unwanteds enter your body through your vagina, the urethra of your penis, anus, or mouth, hitching a ride on semen, or vaginal fluid. Some STIs are transmitted through skin to skin contact, though, which means you don’t even have to have sex to get them — any contact with infected skin can do it.

Second, and equally importantly, you can’t get an STI from someone who doesn’t already have it in their system. By which I mean to say, your sexual partner needs to have an STI in order for you to get it. Even then, this doesn’t mean you will end up with an STI yourself. It just means you’ve put yourself at risk. A bunch of different factors go into how risky a certain act is, but it’s never 100 percent safe or dangerous. Think of it as a numbers game — if you’re not 100 percent sure all your lovers are negative for all STIs, then the more people you’re sleeping with, the more risk you’re taking on — but that doesn't mean sleeping with three people who've been tested is inherently more dangerous than, say, practicing unprotected sex with one person.

2. Use Protection

Barrier Protection

While there are a bunch of methods for preventing pregnancy on the market, there are really only three that also protect you from STDs. These are: abstinence, condoms, and female condoms. The latter two are called barrier protection because they are literally physical barriers between your parts and fluids and the parts and fluids of your lovers. (Just think of Gandalf: YOU SHALL NOT PASS!) Condoms are around 82 percent effective if used typically and 98 percent effective, if used perfectly. This means that even if you use a condom every time you have sex and you put it on right, it still has a chance of falling off or breaking. This is another example of why sex is never risk-free.

Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis

There’s a new daily pill you can take to greatly minimize the chances of getting HIV. If this is an STI that you think you might be exposed to during your, ahem, adventures, talk to your doctor about getting on PrEP, also called Truvada. It can protect you by at least 90 percent if you take it every day.

3. Set Up A Testing Schedule

It’s always a good idea to get tested routinely for STIs, and that’s even more the case if you’re sleeping with multiple people. Why? Because you’re potentially being exposed to more STIs, depending on if your lovers are carriers. Best practice is to get tested every three or six months. If you feel comfortable, tell your doctor about your lifestyle. Based on how many partners you have and how often you have new partners, she can help you set up a testing calendar for how often you should get tested.

4. Know About Lag Times

It’s also important to get tested if you ever have an incident that you think may have exposed you to an STI. This could include having unprotected sex (hey, it happens) or if a condom breaks or slips.

Unfortunately, you can’t rush to the clinic Monday morning after a Saturday night slip-up and expect accurate results, because the tests only work a few weeks after a potential incident. This has to do with what the tests are looking for — most STI tests don’t actually look for the virus or parasite in your body; they are looking for the antibodies your immune system has made to fight the unwanted visitor. It takes a few days for your body to notice the STI and mount a response to fight back. So, basically, it takes two weeks for a Gonorrhea or Chlamydia test to turn up positive. Syphilis can take anywhere from one week to three months. You can test positive for HIV and Hepatitis B and C as soon as one month after infection, but in certain cases it can take up to six months to show up. That said, if you've just had an encounter that you’re worried about, tell your doctor — she will let you know when you can come in for accurate testing.

The lag time (also called the “window period’) between when you are exposed to an STI and when you can test positive for it can not only be stressful — it also means that everyone is walking around with outdated STI information. If my tests all come back negative today, it means that I was negative a few weeks ago. I could have become positive for, say, Gonorrhea in the meantime and not know yet. I say this not to stress you out, but just so you understand how these tests work in your life.

5. Talk To Your Lover(s) About Contraception

Chances are if you’re having a one night stand you don’t want to end up with a baby or infection, which means you need to communicate about contraception. This may come as a surprise, but everyone has different ideas about how to stay safe sexually, so make sure you’re on the same page. I like to tell my partners that I have an IUD and that I also have a big box of condoms next to my bed that they can choose from.

6. Always Have Supplies On Hand

It’s also a good idea to have everything you need if you think you might end up having a sexual experience, so you know you’re covered in the way you want to be. Keeping an extra birth control pill in your bag means you can sleep wherever you want without stressing about having to go home, and carrying condoms means that you will always have them. If having loose condoms bumping around your bag embarrasses you, there are some new condom companies (like L and Lovability) that design condoms specifically to be cute so female-identified people will be excited about carrying them. Or, you can always decorate an Altoid case into a cute discreet carrying case.

7. Talk To Your Lover(s) About Sexually Transmitted Infections

This means both theirs and yours, and yes you should talk about it. I know it’s stressful because STIs are stigmatized and talking about disease isn’t sexy, but as I always say, “Communication is the best lubrication,” and finding out later can feel like a betrayal. So talk to your lover about STIs — I have found it usually works best if you start by telling them the last time you got tested, disclosing if you have anything (asking someone “Are you clean?” can be pretty intense and aggressive, especially if they do have an STI), and then giving them the opportunity to respond and tell you about themselves.

Why all the talking? You have to have a conversation about STIs because you can’t usually tell if someone has them — not by looking anyway. Some STIs do include visual markers, like herpes sores or genital warts, but even these only surface sometimes and for the rest of the STI options, you really can’t tell by looking at someone’s parts.

If you do happen to get an STI, it’s truly not the end of the world. It is important to disclose your status, which can be scary, but it’s necessary — wouldn’t you want to know if you were being exposed to something? I’ve written elsewhere about tips for disclosing STIs to partners, which you can use as a guide to help you with this difficult conversation. But I’m telling you, it isn’t as scary as you might think. Often, lovers will surprise you and react better than you anticipate.

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